Letting Go of the Rope (My Struggle with Forgiveness)

When I was a kid and would get into arguments with my younger brother or sister, my mom enacted swift justice. She’d pronounce guilt, then immediately make the offending party (usually me) say to the one who’d been aggrieved: “You were right. I was wrong.”

Then, whether we wanted to or not, the other would have to respond: “I forgive you.”

That was it. Clean and simple. I might have still been seething inside, wanting to throttle my sibling (either because the court of family justice had once again let me down, or because I really hadn’t forgiven anything), but it was done. Time to move on. This must simply be how forgiveness works.

Gripping the Rope

While life did move on, my views of forgiveness didn’t. I continued to deal with petty failures (others or my own) through this same kind of framework for forgiveness: one party admits fault, the other says all is forgiven, and you just move on.

That seemed to work until about 11 years ago.

Over the course of about a year we could tell that my dad was slowly imploding. He saw his worldwide marriage ministry taking significant hits, and life seemed to be crashing in around him. So, battling depression and feelings of deep rejection, after more than 30 years of ministry and 40 years of marriage, my dad split.

It was a very public and hurtful divorce. It quickly became an illustration in multiple news sources of “another minister who couldn’t keep his own marriage together.”

I was livid. As a son, I watched my mom go through incredible pain and embarrassment; as a father, I watched my three young children go through deep sadness and questioning; and as a person, I had my own hurt and anger to deal with. Lots of anger.

After two emotionally charged phone calls with my dad, we stopped talking altogether. We resorted to lengthy diatribes via email in which I was furiously attempting to prove his wrongness and he was just as forcefully defending his decision. We were at a bitter impasse—one that, after several weeks, was literally making me sick.

I discovered that the deeper my hurt, the tighter I wanted to squeeze the life out of the one who had caused my pain. I felt it was my right (maybe even my duty) to keep a choke hold on my dad until it either killed him or forced him to admit his sin.

Then along came a friend, a counselor, who began to gently probe around the edges of my wounds. As he graciously helped me process my anger, he had me imagine what forgiveness might look like in my situation. At first I didn’t even think it was possible—after all, my dad hadn’t said the magic words: “I was wrong. You were right.” Without the admission of his guilt, what was there to forgive?

But the pain in my soul urged me forward and I began investigating the concept of forgiveness. In the weeks that followed I began deconstructing my old, immature views of forgiveness, while building a new, transformative understanding of this life-giving process.

Two things helped more than any other.

First, I turned to Jesus’ words and discovered I’d been ignorant as to what forgiveness truly meant. As I went to the root meaning of the words he’d used to talk about forgiveness, I found they literally meant: “Let go.”

There are many examples of this truth, but one that rocked me started in Luke 6:37. The exact word Jesus used when he said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” was also used by Pilate before he sentenced Jesus to death. In John 19:10, Pilate said “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

This concept revolutionized my thinking about forgiveness, especially because my hands were so tightly gripping my dad’s throat (figuratively, but barely). Like Pilate, I could extend either freedom or death. It was in my power to forgive, whether or not my dad ever acknowledged any wrongdoing.

I could feel God gently asking me to let him go—not pretending my dad hadn’t caused real pain—but urging me to loosen my grip so I could release him (and my hurts) to God.

I found it came down to an issue of trust. Did I trust Jesus to handle this situation, or did I trust myself more? Did I trust God to judge my dad and bring any needed correction, or did I assume I would do a better job as judge and jailer?

I chose to trust the Lord with my dad, and slowly began the process of letting go. Forgiveness had begun.

The second thing that helped me greatly was coming across an illustration about forgiveness from 20th Century saint, Corrie ten Boom. Corrie’s family members had all died at the hands of the Nazi’s during the Second World War—she was the lone survivor. But her realization that God’s grace is greater than any evil allowed her to become a beacon of hope for millions in the decades after the war.

Corrie said this about forgiveness: “If you have ever seen a country church with a bell in the steeple, you will remember that to get the bell ringing you have to tug awhile. Once it has begun to ring, you merely maintain the momentum. As long as you keep pulling, the bell keeps ringing. Forgiveness is letting go of the rope. It is just that simple. But when you do so, the bell keeps ringing. Momentum is still at work. However, if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stop.”

Corrie’s words not only affirmed the reality that forgiveness means letting go, but also clarified that this wasn’t simply a one-time act that would immediately free me from all pain. Forgiveness was going to be a daily commitment to keep my hands off my dad’s throat, and that eventually the pain would subside. She was right.

While the pain I went through with my parent’s divorce doesn’t scratch the surface of what many have endured, others have let me know that these concepts about letting go have helped them as well.

Can you imagine what forgiveness might look like in your situation? Whose throat are you squeezing? Could you trust Jesus with your pain and those who caused it? Who do you need to let go of to find peace for your soul?

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Love at First Sight

When you first encounter someone, what’s your normal reaction?

For me, I’ve been realizing that my reactions have often been far less than positive. With too much regularity I’ve tended to be:

  • Indifferent — really not caring much about this new person who’s come across my path.
  • Critical — analyzing them from a negative perspective, and usually finding fault.

EyesI was caught by this reality when a particular story about Jesus was brought to my attention a couple months ago. It’s the story about a rich young man who comes to Jesus seeking an answer about eternal life (you can read it here). While I’d read this many times before, I’d missed one very important insight about how Jesus saw this man.

In the story we learn that this guy was very wealthy and had been living quite righteously as well. But we discover that he wasn’t willing to part with his wealth in order to follow after God. Jesus discerned this and challenged him to let go of the idol he’d made of his riches. But he doesn’t — and the story ends tragically with the man, in great disappointment, turning and walking away. He just couldn’t let go of this idol. It was more important to him than following Jesus.

But the part of the story I’d always missed was how Jesus felt about this man before he challenged him. It says:

Jesus looked at him and loved him.

What?! Jesus, you’re God. You know this guy is going to reject you. You know he’s going to put the idol of his riches in front of any relationship he’ll have with you. Why didn’t you turn and walk away from him?

Somehow, Jesus, even knowing this encounter wasn’t going to end well, loved this rich young man anyway. This newly discovered reality has really tweaked me — in a positive way.

Over the past months I’ve been asking myself a couple hard questions, especially when I’m in settings where I’m about to meet someone new:

  • Will I love this person first, before they give me any “reason” to love them?
  • Will I love this person even if they seem to reject me?

I don’t have a perfect record on this — but it has truly made a difference. I’ve found that when I choose to love first it influences my words, my body language, and any responses I might give. It shifts my outlook entirely.

And even if an initial encounter with someone ends less than positively, hopefully it won’t be because I was an idiot. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll still know that I respect them, I care about them, and that my love for them as a person is genuine.

I’m writing this as a challenge and reminder to myself: I can choose to love at first sight.

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More than Voting

Here’s a good reminder for 2012…from over 150 years ago.

“The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls — the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.” Henry David Thoreau, July 4, 1854

Simply stated…

Our country’s destiny depends more on our daily choices than who we cast our vote for once every four years.

I think the Apostle Paul would have agreed with Thoreau on that point. While he probably wasn’t reflecting on voting when he wrote to the people of Rome, in Romans 12 he lays out a civics lesson for the ages. Here’s what he says (in part) it should look like when Christ-followers are good citizens.

  • Love must be sincere — no hypocrisy…no platitudes…love truly.
  • Hate what is evil — don’t play footsies with something that will kill you.
  • Honor one another above yourselves — put others first.
  • Keep your spiritual fervor — love God passionately.
  • Practice hospitality — my neighbors matter…all of them.
  • Live in harmony with one another — unity is essential…it’s worth fighting for.
  • Do not be proud — maybe others’ points of view (even political!) have real validity.
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good — this isn’t just the goal, this is possible with God.

What would our world look like if we dropped ourselves into the street every morning embodying these qualities?

So let’s vote…then let’s do what’s more important: live our lives in humble, evil-resisting, passionate, love. Every day.

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The Next Best Day

I recently heard someone pose these brilliant questions and answers:

When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.

When is the next best time to plant a tree? Today.

All of us have things we wish we would have done long ago.

  • Started that diet
  • Asked for forgiveness
  • Begun a retirement fund
  • Brought a meal to a neighbor
  • Made good on a promise
  • Practiced to run a 5k
  • Sent a love note

The problem is that we get so frustrated with ourselves for what we haven’t done that we become frozen do-nothings. And we come up with self-defeating arguments that keep us stuck: “I can’t start now. It’s been too long. People wouldn’t understand. I’m too old/fat/poor/sick/__________. I’d look ridiculous. It wouldn’t amount to anything.”

This kind of thinking keeps us stuck in a life-sucking, downward spiral of regret:

Frustration → Regret → Stuckness → More Frustration → Repeat →

My Broken Promise

I’d just finished high school when I had the opportunity to travel with a group from my church to Papua New Guinea. We worked for a month on a construction project and had an amazing time getting to meet so many loving people from this beautiful island nation.

Just before we departed for home, the people we’d met threw us a huge party. We feasted and laughed, and were humbled by the gifts they gave. One young man presented me with a beautiful bow and arrow set he had hand crafted. I didn’t have anything to give in return, so I asked if there was something I could send him from home. He was a Bible college student and really wanted a particular study Bible that would help him in his studies. Of course I promised that I’d send one right away.

Unfortunately when I got home I forgot about my promise for several weeks. Then when I remembered, I went to a bookstore I assumed would have the Bible he wanted — of course they didn’t (this was way before Amazon.com!). My busyness and regular forgetfulness caused months to slip by, and by that time I began to become embarrassed as well. I told myself, “The guy already thinks I’m a jerk, and he probably doesn’t even need the book anymore. I’d look stupid for sending it so late. I’ll just chalk this up as a life lesson and I’ll try to remember to not be an idiot next time.”

But as months turned into years, the thought of this unmet promise continued to nag at me — not constantly, but periodically I’d find myself thinking about how I hadn’t fulfilled what I said I would do.

It wasn’t until 20 years later that I finally came to the end of myself — and the end of this destructive thinking and behavior — and immediately wrote a check to go to the library of that young man’s Bible college in PNG. I knew, of course, that he may never find out that I attempted to right the wrong — but I was no longer stuck. What a great feeling!

Getting Free from Stuckness

How can we break free from this “cycle of stuckness”? Here are three thoughts to help us get moving in the right direction.

1. If I’m regretting something I’ve left undone in the past, it’s a strong indicator I should still deal with it.

There are thousands of things we could have done differently in our past. But out of all those decisions, there are probably only a small handful that really stick with us and bring regret. Those are the ones we should put on our “DO TODAY” list.

2. God gives me the strength to do what I need to do today, not to go back and relive the past.

Quit regretting past mistakes. We can’t go back in time to fix those things, but God has given us today! And God’s grace is available to us now to do what we need to do.

The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

3. Do it now — right now!

Don’t let another minute go by without taking irreversible action to do what needs to be done. Go pick up the phone, start the letter, or buy the running shoes! Don’t wait and let the regret grow. Take care of it now. What’s the worst that could happen? Who cares — it’s better than living a life stuck in regret.

Today is the next best day to do what we should have done before! Now go plant a tree.

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The Making of a Dad

On Father’s Day Eve I’m reflecting on my dad-hood. 20 years ago I was blessed with the first of three incredible kids. What a ride! Like many families, we’ve experienced heart-wrenching twists and turns in our collective story, yet maintain more parental pride than should be allowed.

I’m also reflecting on a single chapter in Scripture that, to me, summarizes healthy fathering more than any other. It contains at least six traits that any dad would want to have who desires to build rock solid kids. It’s the first chapter of the second letter written by the Apostle Paul to his “true son in the faith,” Timothy.

Check out these traits that characterize Paul’s relationship with Timothy, and consider how they might be lived out as we lead our kids:

  1. He prayed for his son. 2 Tim. 1:3 “Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.” That’s where it begins, with the realization that my kids need a Savior — and I’m not him! As we lift our kids to God in prayer, we’re reminding ourselves that he is the true answer for their greatest needs.
  2. He was motivated by love. 2 Tim. 1:4 “I long to see you again, for I remember your tears as we parted. And I will be filled with joy when we are together again.” My pride, my anger, or my need for control are all insufficient motivators when it comes to seeking positive life-change in my kids. They know when love is absent. But thankfully they also know when love is present — even when I don’t get it completely right. When kids know they are loved it makes all the difference.
  3. He was spiritually affirming. 2 Tim. 1:5 “I remember your genuine faith, for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice. And I know that same faith continues strong in you.” How many times do I miss opportunities to communicate what my kids are doing right? It’s so critical that I not only see their growth, but that I tell them what I’m seeing. Their self-perception will be formed by what is reflected back to them by the people they most look up to.
  4. He imparted blessing. 2 Tim. 1:6 “This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you.” I have the opportunity as a parent to bless my kids and to literally deposit God’s gifts in them.
  5. He led from the front. 2 Tim. 1:8 “With the strength God gives you, be ready to suffer with me for the sake of the Good News.” Am I living in such a way that I can invite my kids to join with me? Paul reminds me that I have to be a “do as I do” kind of dad, and that the most effective forms of instruction always include modeling.
  6. He taught about Jesus. 2 Tim. 1:9 “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time — to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.” If Paul felt the need to remind Timothy — who was a pastor — about the grace of Jesus, how much more should I be reminding my kids?

Whether you’re a dad or not, these traits can be embodied by all who want to make a lasting and positive difference in the next generation. Every kid deserves someone — a dad, mom, uncle, aunt, or a big brother or sister — who, like Paul, will love them, share life with them deeply, and show them how Jesus can make all the difference.

My desire is that with God’s grace, I’ll do those very things even better in my 21st year of being a dad. My kids are hoping so, too!

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